Post-Dispatch reporter wins press freedom award after attack by Missouri governor | Politics | #government | #hacking | #cyberattack

JEFFERSON CITY — The National Press Club has awarded St. Louis Post-Dispatch data journalist Josh Renaud a press freedom award after his discovery that teachers’ Social Security numbers could be exposed to the public due to flaws on a state website.

After Renaud alerted the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education about the problem, Gov. Mike Parson directed the Missouri State Highway Patrol to investigate Renaud and described the incident as a “hack.”

The National Press Club announced Thursday that Renaud had won the 2022 Domestic John Aubuchon Award. Aubuchon was a former press club president “who had a keen interest in issues of press freedom,” the Press Club said.

The club chooses one domestic and one international honoree every year.

In a joint statement, Jen Judson, president of the National Press Club, and Gil Klein of the National Press Club Journalism Institute, said Renaud had produced “a strong body of journalistic work over his career” but that the Press Club was “particularly impressed with Josh’s recent journalism involving a vulnerability he uncovered on a website belonging to the State of Missouri’s Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.

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“That vulnerability had left the Social Security numbers of public educators exposed and Josh’s diligence led to the security flaw being corrected,” the Press Club said. “For this work Josh received the Horace Mann Friend of Education Award from the Missouri National Education Association. But his watchdog reporting also elicited scorn and threats from Missouri Governor Mike Parson.”

“Parson announced a criminal investigation into Renaud’s work and called his public service reporting ‘a hack’ and accused the Post-Dispatch of having a vendetta against him,” the statement continued.

Parson had pledged at a news conference that he would “not let this crime against Missouri teachers go unpunished” and vowed not to be “a pawn in the news outlet’s political vendetta.”

The Press Club said, “While it has become a deeply regrettable national trend for some public officials to attack the press, this seemed to us a particularly egregious example as the Missouri governor was calling for Renaud to be punished before an official investigation had even taken place.” 

It pointed out that Renaud alerted Missouri public education officials to the security flaw in advance of story publication “and agreed to hold the story until officials had time to fix it.” 

Indeed, Education Commissioner Margie Vandeven planned to thank Renaud before Parson threatened him, the Post-Dispatch reported, citing records obtained from the governor’s office through a Sunshine Law request.

After the Highway Patrol finished its investigation, the agency forwarded its report to the Cole County prosecutor, who declined to press charges in the case.

“We’re honored that the National Press Club has chosen to recognize Josh for his work, and for his courage and grace in enduring a difficult situation,” said Post-Dispatch Executive Editor Alan Achkar. “We have an obligation to serve the public and hold government bodies accountable. Public officials can try to bully us, but we won’t waver from our mission. Josh is a first-rate journalist, and he proves on a regular basis why public service journalism remains critical to our society.”

In a statement, Renaud said, “I feel privileged to work as a journalist in a country where freedom of the press is enshrined in law. But my ordeal shows that we can’t take that freedom for granted. We must hold accountable public officials who use their power to intimidate journalists.”

A spokeswoman for Parson did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Thursday.

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